A good paella is hard to find. In Spain? Yes, in Spain. We’ve searched high in the mountains for the rice dish – hoping to find it studded with slow-cooked pieces of rabbit and seasonal vegetables. We’ve trawled seaside villages, looking for chiringuitos serving a paella packed with the freshest seafood. We’ve even driven through the paddy fields of Valencia in search of the best version of this spectacular dish, tinted golden by saffron.
And yet, and yet, it still proves to be elusive. We often opt for an ‘it shall do’ paella – and, like pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s, you know, kind of good. Paella on the beach is a Sunday staple on the beaches around Marbella – we pay above the odds for the pleasure of the baked rice infused with the earthy saffron flavours.
In the hot backstreets of Torremolinos, faded photographs of bright yellow paella are pinned to the outside of strip-lit restaurants. At the airport, you’ll find giant pans of the stuff cooking out, moisture stripped from each and every grain. On the busiest tourist squares in big cities all over the country, it’s touted by waiters with napkins draped over their arms as they try to lure you into their over-priced establishment.
If you really want to learn more about this dish – which Valencians are working to protect – then you can’t go wrong with Matt Goulding’s (below) excellent tome, Grape Olive Pig. A passionate love letter to Spain and its food, the chapter on Valencia is a must-read.
Do it yourself
Want to try cooking it yourself? At the bare minimum, you’re going to need a large open gas flame, like the wok flame you find on a Rangemaster cooker – anything less just won’t work. Sorry. (A dinner-party-from-hell a few years back starred a poor paella that had been cooked to its dry death on an electric hob in a non-stick pan, the overriding ingredient being cheap supermarket chorizo in huge chunks. It’s a dish that still haunts me to this day).
One of our favourite food writers, Felicity Cloake, runs the gauntlet of the paella purists in order to find out How To Cook The Perfect Paella in The Guardian – it’s a weekly column, and it’s a brilliant collation of recipes, where’s she cherry-picked the best elements of dishes created by famed cooks. It’s a great read, and the final recipe is a great one to follow.
Our favourite spots for paella:
La Matandeta, El Saler, Valencia
Authentic paella on a terrace on the paddy fields, just outside of Valencia. We went there off-season, on a Tuesday lunchtime, and were amazed to be the only ones eating. Cooked over wood, the cooks throw in whichever vegetables are in season, rabbit, snails, sometimes fresh water shrimps.
Los Espigones, Puerto Banús, Marbella
Go off-season for great paella – it’s so busy in high summer that the paella doesn’t get the toasting it needs to get a true soccarat. When it’s good, it’s really very good indeed – but as far from ‘authentic’ as you can get. We are on the Med, so the rice is jewelled with mussels, squid, baby octopus, clams and giant prawns, as well as slow-cooked pork.
Restaurante Victor, Guadalmina, San Pedro de Alcantara
There are rumours that Victor’s – as it’s known by its regulars – is set to close in Guadalmina. If true, that’s a damn shame. It’s been open ever since we can remember. Back in the bad old days, Spanish businessmen and their cohorts would puff away on cigarettes as they refined takes on Spanish classics. Their paella is top-notch – again, it’s a Marbella take on the classic, but the rice is always on-point. The only annoying thing is that the white jacketed waiters serve it for you – the scraping of the soccarat is the best bit of a paella, surely?
Trangallan, Stoke Newington, London
Sacrilegious, right? Recommending a restaurant in London for paella. Head to N16 on a Friday lunchtime for this excellent Iberian restaurant’s lunchtime paella. Cute, quirky, damn tasty.